“Are we ever gonna be better than this?” Cole Carter (Zac Efron) entreats his hyped, pulsating crowd. We Are Your Friends, directed by Max Joseph, isn’t quite sure of the answer. But, as an audience, you wish that this promising, but generic film were better than this. It injects a throbbing beat and fresh style into a classic coming-of-age tale, but all the electronic dance music and formal experimentation can’t keep it out of the mire of a well-worn narrative.
The title We Are Your Friends is a curious one too, because with friends like these — run away. In fairness, Cole is trying to do just that. His scrappy San Fernando Valley foursome is rounded out with a club promoter (Jonny Weston), actor-slash-drug dealer (Shiloh Fernandez), and requisite hanger-on (Alex Shaffer). Cole, an aspiring DJ, is the talent of the operation, and he tries to ditch these jokers every chance he gets. One night he crashes a party with legendary DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), which sends everything topsy-turvy, but soaring into the world on top of the hill, out of the valley.
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James takes him on as a protégé, but matters are complicated by James’ irresistible girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), on whom Cole harbors a crush. The trio manages to work it out until the inevitable molly-enhanced Vegas rave roll in the hay complicates things further. Will Cole get the gig at Summerfest? Will Sophie work it out with alcoholic James? Can Squirrel and the gang keep up this rate of partying? You can probably hazard a guess.
There are some pseudo class struggle themes awkwardly shoveled in to make it seem topical, but also to inspire some sympathy for Sophie and Cole. They’re just too pretty to feel that bad for: inordinately beautiful, shiny aliens from another planet where no one gets hungover and bikini models eat bacon cheeseburgers. Unfortunately for the underdeveloped subplot, every time someone says “housing market,” or “foreclosure,” it makes it feel very 2010.
Efron brings his gorgeous, bright-eyed wonder to the role of Cole, who seems constantly surprised by the world around him, observing it with a child-like zeal when he discovers the organic origins of his computer music. It never seems like he will get sucked into the darkness of this world because his aura is too bright.
Ratajkowski doesn’t quite find the right groove. Playing a defensive too cool girl, it almost seems like she can’t be bothered to be there. She excels at being eye-candy, a trait for which she was no doubt cast.
Joseph’s direction offers up an energetic take on the material, incorporating text visualization, quick-cutting montages, and creative uses of animation to bring the thumping electronic music to cinematic life. Coupled with almost documentary-style shooting, it’s a compelling visual and aural experience, and when the soundtrack is going off, almost anything can be forgiven. Unfortunately, it’s when the music stops that the film’s originality does, too.
Cast: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Shiloh Fernandez, Jon Bernthal, Alex Shaffer.
Director: Max Joseph.
Screenwriters: Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 96 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, sexual content, nudity. Playing at area theaters.